I actually like the Educational Testing Service (ETS). I’ve done work for them as a consultant and as an AP Reader over the years. I enjoyed most of my testing experiences with them, especially the AP US History Exam of 1986. I like many of the conferences that they host and sponsor, and they beat almost all with the spreads of food that they provide at their events. Yet even with all that, ETS’ agenda is one of promoting the ideal of a meritocratic society with a repressive regime of testing that shows beyond a shadow of a doubt the socioeconomic determinism of standardized assessments. Or, in plain English, tests that favor the life advantages of the middle class and affluent over the poor, Whites and assimilated East Asians over Blacks, Latinos, and only partially assimilated immigrants of color.
Such is the case with a nearly unreported new report from ETS. They had scheduled a press release for the “America’s Skills Challenge: Millennials and the Future” on Tuesday, February 17th at the National Press Club in Washington, DC. The organizers postponed the event, though, because of the phantom snow storm that was really a typical snow shower. So I didn’t get to ask my preliminary questions about the findings of researchers Madeline J. Goodman, Anita M. Sands, and Richard J. Coley, that despite the educational gains of the generation born after 1980, they sorely lack the skills they need for life and work in the twenty-first century. My questions? How could anyone have expected millennials to develop independent thinking, critical thinking, innovative thinking, writing and other analytical skills if they spend precious little time in their education actually doing any of these things? How would the constant barrage of high-stakes tests from kindergarten to twelfth grade have been able to instill in students ways to think outside the box, to look at issues with more than one perspective, to stand in opposition to policies based on evidence, and not just based on their gut or something they picked up from a test?
Well, the report is worse than I thought. Goodman, Sands and Coley put together an argument that makes circular reasoning look like a Thomas the Tank Engine episode. The authors produced this first in a series of reports for ETS, relying solely on “data from the Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC).” The PIAAC, developed by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), is a survey that assesses the skill levels of a broad spectrum of people between the ages of sixteen and sixty-five, the primary working population in most developed countries (meaning the US and Canada, the EU, the Baltic states, Australia, Japan and South Korea). ETS and the authors claim that this survey instrument is better at assessing how far behind millennials in particular are when compared to “their international peers in literacy, numeracy, and problem solving in technology-rich environments (PS-TRE)” than the international testing of high school students alone. And as such, the authors concluded that
PIAAC results for the United States depict a nation burdened by contradictions. While the U.S. is the wealthiest nation among the OECD countries, it is also among the most economically unequal. A nation that spends more per student on primary through tertiary education than any other OECD nation systematically scores low on domestic and international assessments of skills. A nation ostensibly based on the principles of meritocracy ranks among the highest in terms of the link between social background and skill level. And a nation with some of the most prestigious institutions of higher learning in the world houses a college-educated population that scores among the lowest of the participating OECD nations in literacy and numeracy.
I don’t about anyone who reads my blog, but I find these conclusions smack of so much hypocrisy that they’re stomach-ache-inducing. Really? Years of promoting testing at every level of K-12 education, everything from state and district-level assessments to PARCC and Smarter Balanced Assessments, and it’s only because of growing economic inequality that US students-turned-adults don’t score well in the super-advanced, highly skilled categories? Not to mention, the SAT, AP exams, GREs, LSATs, GMATs, MCATs, Praxis I, Praxis II, and so many other ETS exams that it would cause the average psychometrician’s head to explode? Seriously?
This is yet another case of the dog chasing its own tail. A case where the $3-billion-per-year nonprofit just outside Princeton, New Jersey is sounding a clarion call for a crisis that it helped create. Not the one on the rapid rise of inequality, though its promoting of a false meritocracy through constant testing has served to lull affluent America into an intellectual coma. But in the cutting of history and social studies, literature and art, theater and music classes, from kindergarten really all the way through a bachelor’s degree program.
In the promotion of testing as the way to address achievement gaps, to deal with the so-called education crisis, so much of what was good about K-12 and even higher education has fallen away. Reading for the sake of reading and learning has drifted away, with more English and less literature in schools and at many colleges and universities than ever. Want to teach someone how to express themselves in writing, to express their numeracy in proofs? That thinking runs counter to what goes on in the Common Core school systems of 2015, meaning most people will either never develop these skills, or, if lucky, might develop them somewhere between their junior year of college and in finishing a master’s degree or doctorate. We emphasize STEM fields with billions of STEM dollars without realizing that great STEM is much more than equations and formulas. It’s also imagination, applying the ability to break down pictures, ideas, words and sentences contextually to the world of numbers and algorithms.
And don’t give me this whole “the SAT now has an essay section on it” spiel! Fact is, everyone knows that expressing their words on paper, on a screen or in speech is critical in modern societies. After almost seven decades of testing, ETS figured this out, too? What they haven’t figure out yet, though, is how to make standardized high-stakes testing a necessary for the entire working adult population in the US. Believe me, that’s where they want to head next.